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I'm currently listening to David Snowden talking about complex adaptive systems (a team producing software counts).

In Agile software coaching and project management, I've heard that one of the useful ways to get a team to change is to have a sense of urgency to which the team needs to respond, or to create one. The theory is that this will allow the team to self-organise around the sense of urgency.

In real life, if there's a crisis, someone often takes control and is quite forceful about holding that control until the crisis has passed. This is also the recommendation which I believe David Snowden makes.

Is there a difference between the way a PM and team should act in a real crisis from a crisis generated in order to drive change? Is it useful to create or fake crises for the purposes of change, or should we be waiting until there's genuine need? In either event - what's the best way to help a team work within a crisis situation?

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I find that any successful Agile transition I've see has a sense of urgency built in. The client is making the change to improve something. Usually its Time to Market or Quality. I find that the "crisis" around this issue is usually enough to drive things forward. If it isn't enough then additionally crises usually arise all on their own: botched production deployment, production bugs killing productive development time etc.

For the best reading/thinking I've seen on this - I like John Koetter's - A Sense of Urgency.

FYI I don't think I've ever had to generate/create a crisis - just focus attention to one that is already there.

  • Mark, I really like this answer - it's useful to remember that there are invariably crises in IT and that all I need to do is wait for another one to crop up. Thanks for the book recommendation too. – Lunivore Oct 4 '11 at 7:26
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The problem with using crisis as a change management tool is that people only focus on the crisis, and not the change. So whatever changes are made to deal with the crisis most likely won't hold over time. The team will regress to the old pattern once the crisis is gone.

Real (sustained) change comes from addressing the root cause of the problem, not simply fire-fighting.

And once you start down the path of "crisis as CM tool", how do you deal with the next crisis that is simply a crisis and not a CM event? How do you communicate to the team that this one isn't supposed to have lasting effects?

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A sense of urgency is one of the nine or 10 critical success factors to a successful change. It is aligned with a compelling reason to change, i.e, they go hand in hand.

To use the words, 'create a sense of urgency or crisis,' is odd to me, however. That implies an almost artificial scenario, smoke and mirrors through which your targeted group under going the change would easily see.

If the urgency or reason to change is not naturally evident, then I might question the need to change at all. Seems like your money would be better spent elsewhere.

However, to drive change, I opine that communicating the urgency and need for change are two critically important components that will help enable change, reduce resistance and risk, and facilitate sustainability.

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Do not manufacture crises. This will backfire on you as badly as in the parable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I've worked for bosses who thought that their workers performed better under a crisis than when one planned ahead.

Some of these are bosses who cannot distinguish between "urgent" and "important". To them, quadrants 2 and 3 don't exist (quadrant 3 is treated as quadrant 1, and quadrant 2 is treated as quadrant 4). For them, a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would be something you'd need to tie them down to read.

Some of these are bosses who think that death marches and crunch mode are great.

One of the reasons that many folks like to hire younger developers is that younger developers are likely to fall for the manufactured crisis ploy than someone who has seen it happen multiple times.

Is there a difference between the way a PM and team should act in a real crisis from a crisis generated in order to drive change?

This is the same question as "is there a difference between lieing and telling the truth?"

  • The manufactured "crises" I've seen haven't always been created by the PM or team. I'm really curious to see if there's a way to push back on the manufactured ones. I guess you could do that effectively if you had a real crisis to deal with. – Lunivore Oct 4 '11 at 7:31
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I would strongly resist the urge to manufacture a crisis, but equally strongly advocate using a real crisis to drive change. My belief is that you need to start by articulating in simple terms why the status quo is not an option, and then explain in equally simple terms a clear and compelling vision of where you need to be (and this should include the timescale that has to be met). Next, find the resources (human, financial, intellectual, and technical) that will allow you to make the change, and finally present a plan that everyone buys into. The sum of this lot should be greater than the natural resistance to change: if it isn't, then you have to go back and strengthen any part of your preparation that is weak.

Once you start to drive the change into the organisation, hold firm. You will meet opponents. Don't lose sight of your compelling case for change, and either take them with you or be prepared to move them out. (I like the phrase "lead, follow, or get out of the way".)

You will need a leader. If you can't personally take this role on, then work with someone who can. And after the crisis has passed, make sure that the change is embedded in the new culture of the organisation otherwise people will drift back to their old ways, and the second time round will be harder than the first.

Finally, don't expect to be Mr Popular. Bear in mind the quote from that old master, Nicolo Machiavelli: "It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

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